The Classroom as Mind and Ecosystem

In the course of a sabbatical in 2007-2008, I spent a great deal of time with Gregory Bateson’s book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. I was working on the question of how we imagine our relationship with nature, and trying to get my head around Bateson’s revolutionary assertion that an ecosystem is a kind of mind.

Of course, when I get excited about an idea I am likely to ask myself how it might apply to teaching. I began asking myself, therefore, if Bateson’s criteria of mind, as he defines it in Mind and Nature, could helpfully apply to a classroom where students and teacher are sitting around a table talking about pieces of writing. Can we see that group as a “mind” in Bateson’s terms? I think the answer is yes and that this can help us think about teaching, for reasons that follow. Bateson’s criteria for mind are in bold face type.

1. Mind is immanent in certain sorts of organization of parts. [The parts of mind are not themselves mental; e.g., the neurons in the brain are not thinking entities. It is their complex, self-organizing interconnectedness that somehow brings about mind.]

We know that mind is already present in the people who make up the class, but the point here is to talk about how the group becomes “mind” in its own way. The organization of the parts is the social compact, the game that the participants agree to play together, the shared purpose (e.g., to write something passionate & beautiful), their willingness to risk, willingness to trust, and so on.

2. The parts are triggered by events in time (by news of difference).

Self-evident. All language is events in time. The “parts” (teacher & students) are triggered to think, feel, react by language both written and spoken.

3. Collateral energy. The stimulus (being a difference) may provide no energy but the respondent has energy.

The stimulus is a piece of writing, or what others say or do. Text on a page (the differences between ink and the paper around it) provides no energy in itself. The energy comes from within the participants, obviously, or the whole thing grinds to a halt. (This criterion is a way of saying that reading is a creative act.)

If I think carefully about this and remember that the issue is the whole group as mind, then how does the group “have energy”? Is it simply the sum of the energy brought by the individual participants? No, it’s more than that. The organization of the parts (the social compact, the shared game) can create, on a good day, a multiplication of the energy that’s brought into the room, I think because human beings find social interaction intrinsically rewarding, and they get excited when they’re aware that collective thinking is going on.

4. Then causes-and-effects form into circular (or more complex) chains.

Obviously and inevitably the case when a bunch of human beings are in relationship to each other.

5. All messages are coded.

This one is interesting. Remember, we’re trying to talk about the collective as a mind. All messages are of course coded (paraphrase: all texts are interpreted) separately by each participant, but how does the group code messages? The first thing that crosses my mind is that it sometimes reacts emotionally; the group laughs, the group is swept over by a wave of sadness, the group becomes tense with anticipation. There must be many ways in which the reading of a piece of writing can produce changes in the group mind. You can feel when the group’s level of attention rises and falls. You can feel when confusion sets in, when people are dropping out because they don’t get it. The group develops aesthetic preferences.

6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation discloses a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.

Though this language is difficult because it’s so abstract, it seems to me to correspond to something I know very well as a teacher. In #6 “processes of transformation” means what “coding” means in #5; in this context, both terms refer to the making of meaning from a written text. “Coding,” in a writing class, is what the teacher asks for by saying “What did it make you think?” or “What stood out for you?”

The content of the writing course consists of “description and classification of the processes of transformation” that take place when writer and text or reader and text meet. Item #6 translates, in this context, to the overarching question “How does the piece of writing work?”

Examples: we talk about what produces a satisfying feeling of endingness; we talk about relationship with a notional being called “the reader.” A “hierarchy of logical types” is always present in the discussion, which oscillates between the exact words on the page (first-order thinking, accurately perceiving what’s there) and the meanings readers make of them (higher-order thinking, interpretation). It oscillates between the content of the piece, e.g. the life experiences narrated in a memoir, and the way the piece of writing was managed, was structured as an art work, e.g. the voice that does the narrating and what difference that voice makes.

Bateson’s list of “some of the potentialities of minds that exhibit these six criteria” fits very well with what we experience in a class:

autonomy (every class you teach or are part of has its own character, its own wilfulness)

death (every class disintegrates on the last day, its parts lose that particular organization forever, its autonomy no longer exists)

purpose and choice (as part of its autonomy, a class wants to drive in some sort of direction, even if in the worst case its choice is passivity and sullen resistance)

self-correction (a class as a collective develops some sort of baseline, a “way this thing works,” that it wants to return to as a norm. On the most concrete level, people tend to choose a certain seat at the table and keep it. If a student is out sick for two weeks, her absence will be noticed; a new normal may be created, a way of functioning without her, which is then noticeably altered when she returns.)

“the system will learn and remember, it will build up negentropy [order, organization, a structure of relationships], and it will do so by the playing of stochastic games called empiricism or trial and error. It will store energy.”

(seems like a description of why you have a discussion class in the first place. Does this always happen? I suppose in the case of total failure to jell as a class, there is no system – only a collection of unconnected individuals – and so this never gets off the ground.)

“Finally, the system will be capable of uniting with other similar systems to make still larger wholes.”

(yes, you could take two or more sections of a course, which each have their autonomy as mind, and unite them into a plenary that is a larger whole)

“In conclusion, two questions may be raised: Will the system be capable of some sort of aesthetic preference?”

[Absolutely yes. It doesn’t matter whether the class is about an aesthetic subject, like writing. The group as mind will have an aesthetic preference about something, e.g., ways that the teacher teaches from moment to moment.]

“Will the system be capable of consciousness?”

[Again, because we’re dealing with human beings, yes. The group can undoubtedly be aware of itself as group.]


All well and good. Suppose everything I’ve said is accurate; does it matter? Or is it just an elegant intellectual game?

Now I have to try to say why I think it matters.

If each class is (at least potentially) a mind, what follows for me as a teacher?

For one thing, if the group is a mind, and I am a mind, we are in a relationship of equality and respect, as beings of the same kind.

But I can go farther: the class-as-mind subsumes me as one of its parts. I’m reminded that what Bateson calls a “larger thinking” or “wider intelligence” is going on in the room. By myself, I am not the measure of that intelligence, or its upper limit.

Everything Bateson says about mind applies to an ecosystem; he is arguing that ecosystem is, in his terms, mind. This points me in a direction: think of a class as an ecosystem. What do we know about ecosystems, and about our relationship to them, that might apply in the classroom?

Ecosystems, like other complex systems, self-organize. We do not create them, though we can influence them in drastic ways; they create themselves, and they evolve, even when we might prefer for them to hold still in their present form. Such is clearly the case with the groupness of each group we teach.

For several centuries, we (the inheritors of the Industrial Revolution) have been in the habit of thinking of ourselves, in relationship to nature, as the unmoved mover, self-determining, the first cause. We still might like to think we can grab the steering wheel and drive the planet where we want it to go. But this is definitively impossible, once we grasp the nature of complex systems. It may look like it works for a while, but it doesn’t work forever. When you intervene in a complex system, you always, inevitably, produce unintended consequences. All this seems to me to apply to teaching.

Complex systems have no single largest model: that is, no one explanation suffices to account for what goes on in them. The only way to think adequately about a complex system is to look at it from multiple perspectives and make use of multiple ways of accounting for it. It’s impossible to think multiple explanations simultaneously, but it is possible to remember that they are operating simultaneously, and it is possible for such an understanding of a complex system to manifest consciously as an intuition. A great deal of thinking about teaching is necessarily intuitive. Nothing else is fast enough.

In an ecosystem or any complex system there is no first cause, no prime mover, no starting point other than a fictitious one we might designate to make it easier to think about the whole. In the game of Classroom we agree, for the sake of the game, that the teacher will be the prime mover, but this doesn’t keep the whole event from complexly evolving in an ongoing way.

What an ecosystem does, what it is amazingly good at, is that it enables every organism in the system to thrive better than it could on its own. In a classroom, “thrive better” translates as “learn more.”

It is not the roster of organisms within it that constitutes the system; rather it is their relationships, the circular and multiply branching pathways of causation (flows of nutrients) that make it an ecosystem. We cannot make these mutually beneficial relationships arise in a classroom; what we absolutely can do – one of the most important things we do – is influence the environment in which they may do so.

It would be idealistic to assume that the self-organizing ecosystem idea of the classroom will automatically come true. The outcome hinges not just on the teacher (of course) but on the students’ conception of their own role as students. Which may not be the same for all. I understand how one fears that students just won’t care, but in my experience, that doesn’t happen much. In my opinion, at the beginning of a course there is almost always some caring (within the students as a group) to work with. The challenge is to find that caring and work with it, cultivate it, find a way to speak to it. There’s probably always variation among individuals in how much they care and why, and there can be some who really don’t give a damn, or who have only extrinsic motivation (not failing the class). But a subset of a group can self-organize even if some in the whole group don’t play along. There are usually more who do play than who don’t. And I’m sure that allowing oneself to care is something one can learn from the peer group. Yet nothing always works. There can be outliers who want to stay that way, who are self-exiled as it were, and the group accepts them as such after a while; at least, this is my view as teacher. That can become simply one more aspect of “the way this works.” There are students whose caring takes an adversarial form, who need to participate as the Antagonist, who engage their learning by resisting it. But even this doesn’t mean they don’t care or that they are not part of the “ecosystem.”

One very (to me) intriguing piece of ecological theory is that an ecosystem has, beyond the self-organizing part in which every organism thrives better than it otherwise would, a part that can be called the “overhead,” which is the disorganized, redundant, not obviously functional part, the part that doesn’t seem able to become part of the whole. Now here’s the interesting piece: the “overhead” is a good thing that contributes to the ecosystem’s ability to survive. If every single aspect of the ecosystem were perfectly, tightly organized, it would become brittle — any environmental change could cause the whole thing to collapse, because everything is linked in a certain way that’s tied to the current circumstances. But when the surroundings change in some way, the “overhead” can function as a kind of safety margin. The formerly “useless” capabilities may become helpful, constructive, advantageous. I think this might apply metaphorically in the classroom, too. Things do change during a course – there are different assignments, different challenges, different layers to the task at hand. It’s possible that a student who was an outlier at the beginning may have abilities that can be tapped later on in the course.

This concept of “overhead” also implies that creative thinking may look at first glance like something useless that I can’t take seriously. I suppose this tells teachers to stretch beyond their comfort zone in entertaining the possibility that ideas which seem crazy might actually be worth something.

When you’re part of a self-organizing system (and we are), some of the time you have to let the system organize you.

Therefore you must (I believe) operate with a certain lightness of touch and readiness to adapt. You’re not helped by believing in the possibility of total control (categorically ruled out as a possibility), nor in a single explanation. It does no good to look for THE answer, THE strategy. The right way, if there is such a thing, is not an explanation or a strategy but an attitude. A stance. An outlook, an ethic. It includes humility and belief, putting faith in an agency outside oneself which will not be finally explained. You succeed, not by ceasing to do your part, not by adopting an attitude of fatalism or passivity, but by being willing to see what the ecosystem is doing, which you could not have anticipated, and by playing your part in concert with that.

Perhaps these are all self-evident assertions about teaching; I can’t speak for the reader. I believe the ecosystem and our relationship to it is an apt metaphor for teaching a class, one that can continue to remind me of what I am trying to live up to, and who I need to be in the process.


You can download this as a Word document here: The Classroom as Mind and Ecosystem